Being a Better Conspiracy Theorist


In yesterday's news I linked to an article in the New Republic, "The New Paranoia", that I wanted to pull out and put some focus on. I think it's an important piece for picking apart the deep level of conspiranoia we're currently living with across the political spectrum, from Pizzagate to Russia collusion.

Now if you're a conspiratorial thinker leaning hard to either side of the political divide, there are probably some things in the article that will rile you. While its focus is on how the left has started partaking in conspiracy theories, its criticisms range from Alex Jones on the right through to Louise Mensch on the left (yes I know Mensch is nominally right-wing, but currently she has a lot of followers from the left kneeling at her feet on account of her anti-Trump/Russian collusion screeds). As such, I can see plenty of readers not reaching the end of the piece due to it upsetting one of their closely-held beliefs.

But it's definitely worth reading through the entire article - not only to perhaps critique your own beliefs and assumptions, but also because towards the end it is clear that the writer is not simply 'anti-conspiracy'. Instead, they offer up some very clear thinking on the matter that is usually absent in discussion of the topic:

Just because you’re paranoid, of course, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. History has had more than its share of false flags, fifth columns, and Reichstag fires. We are not living in Nazi Germany in 1933, but there are enough echoes to be a cause for concern... It may yet be the case that conspiratorial thinking will have a place in our arsenal of resistance. Viewing coincidences skeptically and connecting seemingly random dots is precisely what exposed the conspiracies of Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal...

...In other words, it is not the methodology of conspiracy that’s the problem. When paranoid thinking opens up possibilities, it can serve a useful function. The danger comes when conspiracists remain wedded to their theories in the face of conflicting information, when they refuse to do the hard work of confirming and substantiating their own assumptions and beliefs. Woodward and Bernstein did not simply point to a trail of shady campaign contributions and tweet that Nixon was behind it all. They followed the facts, step by painstaking step, all the way to the Oval Office.

Goertzel, helpfully, casts conspiratorial thinking as either “monological” or “dialogical.” The former is invested in a single, preordained understanding of the world; every scrap of evidence, no matter how inconsequential or contradictory, is marshaled on behalf of the monolithic perception. Mensch’s ever-growing list of suspected Russian agents is a textbook example of Goertzel’s monological thinking: There is nothing that can’t be twisted to fit into her preexisting matrix. Dialogical thinking, by contrast, is open to ambiguity and conflict. It looks for unexpected angles, new approaches, and unexplored nuance; hypotheses are tested and conclusions are discarded when they are contradicted by the facts. “The key issue is not the belief in the specific conspiracy,” Goertzel observes, “but the logical processes which led to that belief. As with other belief systems, conspiracy theories can be evaluated according to their productivity.” There’s nothing wrong with conspiracy theories, in other words, if they provide illumination. Looking for hidden clues is essential to bringing secrets to light.

It can't be stated enough, though, how difficult it actually is to "do the hard work of confirming and substantiating you own assumptions and belief". Your brain does not like to be wrong, it likes to find things that agree with the original assumption, and it likes to discard inconvenient facts. It is hard work, and painful to the ego sometimes. But it's essential that we all try and be as brutally honest with ourselves as we can, critiquing our assumptions, what part our own biases and assumptions might be motivating us, playing devil's advocate, truthfully assessing the credibility and trustworthiness of our sources, being clear when we are speculating, and in the end, staying humble and always ready to admit mistakes.

Link: The New Paranoia


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Charles Pope's picture
Member since:
23 October 2009
Last activity:
8 hours 36 min

It seems that conspiracy, like poverty, will always be with us.

We are born liars. Growing up is simply an unspoken process of figuring out the right balance of truth and lies in order to function within the matrix of society. Some of us adapt, many don't.

Those that lack self-sophistry and choose the path of exposing institutionalized crime, cultural hypocrisy and religious blind spots just irritate those that have become "comfortably numb".

For most of human history there was only one giant conspiracy, that being the "divine right of kings". Now conspiracies can come from any number of sources. It's a veritable hall of mirrors.

allynh's picture
Member since:
29 November 2012
Last activity:
2 weeks 1 day

Joel Shepherd in his _Cassandra Kresnov_ series came up with the term "Compulsive Narrative Syndrome(CNS)". It's a made up, SciFi term that actually describes what is happening. When I first googled the term years ago, nothing came up on the search. Now links are starting to show up.

“The human brain is trained to look for and identify patterns, but in abstract concepts, fixed and unarguable facts are hard to find. So the brain looks for narratives instead, stories that can tie together various ideas and facts in a way that seems to make sense, to make a pattern. And the human brain, always seeking a pattern as a basic cognitive function, will latch onto a narrative pattern compulsively, and use that pattern as a framework within which to store new information, like a tradesman honing his skill, or someone learning a new language. That’s why religions tell such great stories, the story makes a pattern within which everything makes sense. A synchronicity of apparent facts. Political ideologies, too. Humans are suckers for a great story because we can’t resist the logical pattern it contains."

“When you’re learning a new skill, discarding irrelevant information and organizing the relevant stuff within that framework is good. But in ideologies, it means any information that doesn’t fit the ideological narrative is literally discarded, and won’t be remembered . . . which is why you can argue facts with ideologues and they’ll just ignore you. They’re not just being stubborn, their brains are literally structurally incapable of processing what they perceive as pattern-anomalous data. That’s why some ideologues get so upset when you offer facts that don’t match their pattern, it’s like you’re assaulting them.

So what Compulsive Narrative Syndrome really says is that being a one-eyed partisan isn’t just a matter of taste or values, it’s actually a cognitive, neurological condition that we all suffer from to some degree. And it explains why some people’s ideologies can change, because sometimes a new pattern is identified that overrides the old one. And it explains why the most intelligent people are often the most partisan and least objective, because pattern recognition is a function of higher intelligence. If you want an objective opinion, ask a stupid person.”

What's interesting, if you tell somebody that what they are saying is false, it triggers them to believe you are trying to suppress something and that reinforces their beliefs. This is Monty Python's _Life of Brian_ writ large.

BTW, the end of the article that you quote is precisely the trigger for confirming that a "conspiracy" is taking place. The end is the heart of what drives CNS. HA!

Thanks for the links. This all goes into my story folders.

Jubalon_Flux's picture
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29 August 2015
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7 weeks 6 days

I don't have closely-held beliefs, but to quote a great man, I have a wide diversity of suspicions

RealityTest's picture
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16 August 2006
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1 day 11 hours

I'm not impressed with the article and find Colin Dickey rather clueless.

Whether you call it "cognitive dissonance," "confirmation bias," or something else, it's definitely true that what we believe can very easily prevent us from accepting any and all information contrary to those beliefs. (One helpful belief is to believe in the value of taking at least a small grain of salt with any and all information, while even Seth teaches his readers to perpetually examine their beliefs and, when appropriate, change them.)

Yet Dickey is clearly not aware of the prevalence of conspiracies to commit crimes and cover them up. This probably dates to the earliest cities -- it's a human proclivity. Many, many crimes undoubtedly never come to light but there are more than enough in the public record for anyone who bothers to peruse the public record to acknowledge this prevalence.

Facts typically emerge years and sometimes decades after such a conspiracy (if at all), when perpetrators may be dead, their crimes nearly forgotten. This may come about from the declassification of documents (if this is a government conspiracy) and the slow accumulation of detail by diligent researchers and historians, a process that has become somewhat accelerated thanks to the Internet. (Note that some researchers have been found dead of "suicide" after announcing the publication of a book based on their researches -- the list is long and includes those who shot themselves in the back or the back of their head, sometimes twice...)

Other facts are simply forgotten and/or ignored by major media outlets if pertaining to some past event that may still be highly relevant in the present. Examples of these include all that was revealed about the CIA in the 1975 congressional hearings (including penetration of over 90% of U.S. print media beginning in the 1950s), conclusions of the United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, the Iran Contra hearings, and so on. (Note, too, the amazing number of witnesses who died just before testifying in the latter two situations.)

Many in the U.S. are too young to remember the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the BS behind it, even if they may remember the much more recent WMD BS. Both could quality as conspiracies, depending on your definition.

So a belief in conspiracies need not have much, if anything, to do with paranoia; rather it may be based on a reading of history that is deeper than that found in college or high school texts, in major network documentaries, or on Wikipedia.

Even NYTs bestsellers like David Talbot's _The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government_ contain documented examples of actual conspiracies (those unfamiliar with these, or believing the U.S. is Lollipop Land, may have their minds blown if they read just this one single book).

The events Talbot discusses end with the death of Allen Dulles in 1969 but anyone who reads the book is likely to wonder what took place afterwards "behind the scenes," up to and including the present.